What do copy editors do, exactly?

A great answer to that question is supplied in this Q&A with Mary Norris, a copy editor with The New Yorker. I especially liked this bit:

Andy: What qualities make a person a good candidate for copy editing?

Mary: Self-doubt. It’s always good, before changing something, to stop and wonder if this is a mistake or if the writer did this for a reason. When you’ve read a piece five or more times, it is tempting to believe that it must be perfect, but you have to stay alert for anything you might have missed. Eternal vigilance! It also helps to have read widely (and well), and to have noticed, while you’re at it, how words are spelled. Of course you have to be attentive to details—you have to be a bit of a nitpicker yet be constructive in your nit-picking. You have to love language. And not be too proud to run spell-check.

Lots of other great insights in the interview as well, so do read the whole thing. (Hat tip: Arts & Letters Daily.)

Obviously, Mary’s work differs radically from my own, even though we share the job title “copy editor.” For example, her week seems to consist of fine-tuning literary essays by celebrated authors during the eminently humane hours of 10-6.

In contrast, I’m pretty much shoveling copy non-stop from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. (Not that I’m bitter or anything.) I don’t necessarily mean “shoveling” in a bad way; after all, we are a daily newspaper and an around-the-clock website, so our “metabolism” (to steal a new-media buzzword I hate) is much faster than The New Yorker‘s. Online journalism will definitely get your adrenaline flowing, and I really do enjoy it. But sometimes I miss the days when I had the time to read a story twice, or more, to ensure near-perfection in every component. Those days, however, are never coming back, and I’ve made my peace with that.

Anyway, here’s how a typical workday shapes up for me. Try not to hyperventilate from the excitement.

Arrive at 3 p.m. Log on, scan the Lifeline Live entertainment-themed blog for things that need correcting, and jump in and make fixes. Perform a quick quality check of the wire stories that have been posted by our daytime Web producers. Scan the Life front for any glaring typos.

After about a half-hour of that, I dive into editing copy for the newspaper. Besides the usual fact-checking, grammar-fixing, headline-writing and page-proofing, this process now involves pre-formatting stories for Web posting — creating a URL, adding an SEO-friendly headline and writing a 140-character “brief” that, ideally, summarizes the story but differs from the lede.

As the pages are typeset, the stories automatically publish to the Web, thanks to the pre-formatting described above. But they still must be “enhanced.” Photos need to be attached, as well as links to other relevant content. “Enhancing” can be as simple as adding a picture, which takes maybe a minute, or as complex as turning a “charticle” into something that works online, which can take much, much longer.

There are frequent requests for the copy desk to edit online-only items — the text for stand-alone photo galleries or interactive pieces, for example. We handle those as they become available. Additionally, after the last daytime Web producer leaves around 7 p.m., I scan the wire for AP stories to publish to the website.

Finally, at the end of the night, I rearrange the Life front to highlight the fresh content that’s just been published. Recently, I’ve also been given the OK to craft the occasional blog post for Lifeline Live if any minor (or major) news breaks.

It’s a hectic job that’s changing constantly, and, yes, it’s often overwhelming. But copy editing is still deeply rewarding to me, and I can’t imagine doing anything else — even when the  job steers me into “unexpectedly absurd conversations.”


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